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Is the United States Earthquake Ready?

Stockbyte/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- As Japan struggles to recover from its devastating earthquake, a new report released Wednesday says Americans have been lulled into a false sense of security about seismic activity.

Robert Hamilton, a retired seismologist and chairman of the committee of experts that compiled the report, told ABC News, "The lesson in Japan and the lessons from Hurricane Katrina show that when you go from a moderate event to a larger, greater event it can cause a lot of trouble."

In 2008, an earthquake exercise in California estimated that a 7.8 magnitude quake there would result in 1,800 deaths, $113 billion in damages to buildings and $70 billion in business interruption.

The National Academy of Sciences has come up with a 20-year "road map" to build earthquake "resilience" in the United States. This doesn't mean earthquake-proofing everything, which is impossible, but taking steps to help lessen damage and hasten recovery.

The report offers 18 recommendations, which its authors believe would better prepare the United States to handle a major quake. They include additional research to help understand and predict quakes, testing and designing better building codes, updating standards to allow highways, electric grids and water systems to continue to function after an earthquake. The recommendations also call for better emergency response, including preparedness plans and exercises.

Following the road map wouldn't come cheap, though. Estimates put the first five years of the plan at $306 million a year.

Some parts of the United States are better prepared than others. California, Hamilton says, has done a lot to prepare for a major catastrophe.

"They have improved building codes that many communities, but not all, have adopted. In the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, which are the most seismic areas, some steps have been taken, but it is by no means a comprehensive approach."

As for the rest of the country, "I'd say we're pretty much unprepared," said Hamilton.

The New Madrid fault, which runs through the central Mississippi Valley, poses a major worry for seismologists. It was the site of major earthquake activity in 1811 and 1812.

And what if a large quake were to occur on the densely populated East Coast?

"Structures just aren't designed to handle earthquakes," Hamilton said. Earthquake preparedness gets "worse the further east you go."

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

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